Why It's So Damn Hard to Be Happy

There is endless information these days about happiness, and, specifically, how to be happy. There is no shortage of books, blog posts, TED talks, and documentaries on the subject. It’s naturally a popular topic because it’s the one thing we are all after. And one would think that since there has been this explosion of material dealing with how we should go about achieving happiness, we’d all have it in the bag.  

But somehow we don’t. We’re still searching. Why is that? I mean it seems pretty simple: happiness is a choice, so choose it-right?  Mission accomplished. Think positive thoughts & go forth being happy. It’s all about the attitude, so improve your attitude. Voilà! Happiness is right there. And let’s not forget the importance of gratitude.  Counting your blessings each day is a sure fire way to finding happiness.

It may sound like I am mocking or being sarcastic, but I actually believe all of these things. I just don’t believe they are easy to do. I think these messages are too often delivered in an oversimplified manner and with not enough direction on what it takes to put such shifts in attitude, perspective, and behavior into practice.  And happiness does inevitably take practice.

For some it will require more practice than for others. Did you know that you were born with a happiness baseline- a "set point"? How happy and optimistic you naturally are is in your DNA.  The good news is, the level of happiness you inherited accounts for only 50% of your total measure of happiness. A good portion of the rest is absolutely up to you, but it will take some work.

I reached out to my good friend and Psychologist Dr. Jacinta Jimenez and I asked her what she finds to be the most common blocks to happiness among the clients she works with. Here is what she had to say:

DH: Dr. Jimenez, in your Positive Psychology practice, what do you find are common blocks to happiness & positivity that people experience?

Dr. J: I have found that many individuals have come to believe (whether it be from media, messages, culture, etc.) that experiencing positive emotions ‘should’ be easy. In reality, cultivating positive emotion takes active work and effort; accepting and understanding this is often where people get stuck.

Many of my clients are very surprised to learn that research has found that objective life circumstances (that is whether we are married, divorced, rich, poor, beautiful, plain, healthy, unhealthy, etc.) combined account for not more than 10% of variance in people’s well being (Schacter, Gilbert & Wegner, 2010). That said, your subjective well being (i.e. your personal perspective, feelings, beliefs, etc.) plays a MAJOR role in your ability to experience happiness.

A great example of this is Thomas Edison’s reaction to the thousands of unsuccessful attempts he experienced when trying to invent the light bulb. When asked how it felt to fail so many times, Mr. Edison said, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward” (Syed, 2010). There are many ways in which he could have interpreted this, but obviously, his optimistic outlook provided him with what appears to have been enough subjective well being to continue to move forward with his attempts.

One could argue that the above example is due to the fact that Thomas Edison was inherently an optimist; yes, this may be true, but either way, optimism can be learned. Although there may well be a genetically inherited component to optimism, research has found that 40% is in our control (Baumeister, 1991). This is where active effort comes into play; we can teach ourselves to be optimists, but it takes work.

Learning how to be more optimistic starts with listening to the way we describe both the good things and the bad things that happen to us; I refer to this as taking an observer stance. If we are aware of how we think about things, we can begin to make active efforts to challenge and restructure our thought patterns to be more adaptive for us.

I often tell my clients that applying Positive Psychology principles to one’s life and creating happiness is very much like working out—you have to put in the effort, sometimes it is not easy, but in the end the results make it all worthwhile.

In summary:

  • ™Happiness is not something that just happens to us but rather something that we must consciously choose and work at.

  • Positive psychology demonstrates that we can improve our level of happiness by changing how we focus on the world and that optimism can be learned.

  • Taking an “observant stance” increases self-awareness and the opportunity to choose and direct our actions to create more opportunities for subjective well being.

(References listed at closing)

Dr. Jimenez immediately pointed out that active work and effort are required in cultivating positive emotions. And there are specific ways to do that. Let us not forget that there is a science to happiness where positive emotions are the result of specific activity occurring in the brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that certain behaviors, actions, and experiences release particular chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters which create positive emotions.  

This is not as simple as choosing to be happy.  Have you ever been depressed or know someone who is? A depressed person knows that it’s not merely a matter of choice. Happiness can more accurately be likened to a skill rather than a choice. It is something that can be learned, and for many of us actually needs to be learned in order to be achieved.

So if you’re interested in learning a new skill, why not choose happiness?  Turns out that choosing happiness is no different than choosing to play the guitar, or to salsa dance, or to rock climb.  You can’t simply decide to be a guitarist and expect to pick up a guitar and play. With enough focused attention and practice you can play masterfully.  So too, you can master your own happiness.

Increased happiness begins with a choice, and requires that you form new habits, both mental and behavioral.  It will take active work and effort.  It may even be hard, but as Dr. J points out, totally worth it.  Understanding and accepting this, as Dr. Jimenez mentions, is key to cultivating the joy we desire in our lives.

Want to know how happy you are? Take this quiz. Interested in developing that habits of happiness? Work with me!


Baumeister, R.F. (1991). Meanings of Life. New York: Guildford.

Schacter, D. L., Gilbert, D. T., & Wegner, D. M. (2010). Psychology. (2nd ed.). New York: Worth Pub.

Syed, M. (2010). Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the science of success. (p. 128). New york: Harper